'Late Show' host David Letterman signs off for the last time

After a record-breaking 33 years as a late night talk show host, David Letterman's farewell show brought back many frequent guests and fan favorites.

Nancy Kaye/AP/File
Host David Letterman, right, and guest Bill Murray appear at the taping of the debut of "Late Night with David Letterman" in New York on Feb. 1, 1982. After 33 years in late night and 22 years hosting CBS' "Late Show," Letterman retired on May 20.

After 33 years on late night television – hosting both CBS’s "The Late Show" and NBC's "Late Night" – David Letterman signed off for the last time on May 20.

While the show produced no tears from Mr. Letterman, it was an emotional ending as he called "The Late Show" "the most important show of my life." The CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, came on stage to personally thank Letterman, and although the show ran 17 minutes over its one-hour time slot, CBS made room for its star’s farewell.

The show began with a presidential send-off. A clip from Gerald Ford's inaugural address stated that “our long national nightmare is over” – a sentiment echoed by George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush until President Barack Obama added “Letterman is retiring.” A concerned Letterman then entered to ask “you’re just kidding, right?”

On a friendlier note, many fellow late night talk show hosts took time on their own programs to pay tribute to the legendary Letterman. Conan O’Brien interrupted his own show to tell his audience to “go watch Dave instead.” Jimmy Kimmel attributed his own success to Letterman, as it was after being a guest on his show that ABC approached him about hosting his own show. Jimmy Fallon reminisced about how after 9/11 a tragedy-stricken New York turned to Letterman for answers.

The last rendition of Letterman's reoccurring Top 10 segment focused on "Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave" and brought in many frequent "Late Show" guests, including Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Peyton Manning, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Barbara Walters, and Alec Baldwin.

The group came up with a variety of clever one liners. "30 Rock" stars Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, respectively, said “Of all of talk shows, yours is most geographically convenient to my home," and  “Thanks for finally proving men can be funny." Chris Rock, in a fashion true to the Letterman tradition, burned CBS saying, "I'm just glad your show is being given to another white guy."

Letterman will be replaced by former host of “The Colbert Report” Stephen Colbert, who will take over "The Late Show" on Sept. 8. Although Letterman, who did not have a say in the choice of his successor, told The New York Times that he thought his leaving would be a good opportunity to put a person of color or a woman on late night TV, he did take the time during his final episode to say he was excited to see Colbert host the show.

“I wish Stephen and his staff and crew nothing but the greatest success,” Letterman told his audience.

The Foo Fighters, frequent musical guests on the show and Letterman’s self-proclaimed favorite band, closed out the show with their sentimental hit song “Everlong," which was interspersed with a montage of famous Letterman moments from the last 33 years.

As the Monitor reported, Letterman’s years as a talk show host shaped not only the landscape of late night television, but the direction comedy took for the years that followed. “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon summarized Letterman’s influence in a tearful tribute on Monday: 

I, like many of you, grew up watching Dave… If you saw somebody throw a watermelon off a roof, and you go, oh my gosh, adults get paid for doing that? That type of stuff had never been done on TV before. This was at 12:30 ... so this was kind of like unexplored space, this is like the Wild Wild West. And I think this show, what late night has become, is a result of him playing with the genre and experimenting and exploring, and I, like every kid who grew up watching him, will miss him.

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